On 2 September 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the commissioning ceremony of India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. Built by Cochin Shipyard Limited, the event flags a major milestone in India’s journey to the expansion of its maritime power. The achievement is laudable but must not be allowed to mask the point that maritime power is a generic term that encompasses naval, merchant marine capacity and infrastructure assets like ports and inland connectivity. The journey is not only endless but also extremely high in financial outlays. Yet, it is one that has the potential of being offset through economic benefits derived from maritime trade.
Boosting maritime strength
India’s fundamental strength to boost maritime power inheres in its seafaring traditions over millennia. In the contemporary scenario, because of its extensive nautical experience, viewed purely in quantitative terms, India’s human capital in the naval and merchant marine domain is probably among the top three in the world. Such an asset is invaluable but one that cannot be easily matched by technological advancements. It is therefore ironic that India has been struggling to build its naval capacity and has been commercially outclassed in merchant-ship building. Fortuitously, indigenous naval capacity-building holds better promise, as signified by INS Vikrant, even if it took twenty years from approval by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to commissioning.
The case for a third aircraft carrier is strong because it is the only platform that can provide cover through air and anti-submarine assets to the surface fleet if it has to operate at significant distances from India’s continental mass. Its utility during situations of peace and crises is unmatched due to its conspicuousness and ability to show force. There should be no doubt that India’s naval capacity must be envisioned to facilitate the protection of its maritime trade routes from adversarial elements. Such safe-keeping will require both surface and under-sea capabilities. The aircraft carrier is not only the prime platform for protecting the surface ships but it also complements the role of submarines in the under-sea domain. In operational terms, it is an indispensable asset for the Navy if it has to operate in the Indian Ocean Region. The argument that ship-based air defence missile capabilities can provide air cover is blind to the offensive potential of sea-borne aviation. Moreover, in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical conception, the aircraft carrier can provide the backbone for maritime cooperation with friendly countries.
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The importance of a third aircraft carrier
So now that India will have two aircraft carriers, the question is, why is a third one necessary? Let us keep aside the argument that if we do not commence the manufacturing of the third aircraft carrier, the invaluable asset of experience and knowledge gained by the nation will be lost. The other major reason for a third aircraft carrier is to do with the fact that aircraft carriers are very heavy on maintenance cycles. These cycles range from short, medium and long and get more extensive with age. The long cycle can stretch up to two years and beyond. The maintenance cycles are also utilised for upgrades, which can stretch them further. Considering their crucial role and India’s growing geopolitical threats, the third carrier may not be a matter of choice but one of necessity.
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Roadblocks in building under-sea capability
The choice for a third aircraft carrier is juxtaposed by the pull of building under-sea capability in the form of submarines. The capability is offensive and boosted by stealth derived from the ability to cruise undetected at great depths for long periods. With India’s continental peninsula and island territories straddling the maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean, the offensive potential of submarines is obvious and one ideally suited for sea denial. In addition, modern submarines also have missile capability to engage land targets.
India’s submarine arm is more than five decades old. Eight Soviet Foxtrot Class submarines were inducted between 1967 and 1974. It was followed by 10 Kilo Class submarines from Russia and four Type 209s from Germany between 1986 and 2000. Two of the Type 209s were built by Mazagon Docks Shipbuilders Limited (MDL). However, due to a lack of follow-on orders, all human capital was lost and the manufacturing chain remained unutilised.
In 1999, the government approved a 30-year plan for 24 conventional submarines. This was later modified to 18 conventional and six nuclear-powered submarines. The plan was to build six under Project 75, six under Project 75(I) and six under Project 76. Projects 75 and 75(I) were supposed to build design and manufacturing capability and facilitate the transfer of technology. Project 76 was to build Indian-designed submarines. The 75(I) and the 76 were to be equipped with Air-Independent-Propulsion (AIP) systems that could boost underwater endurance, suppress noise and increase stealth.
Project 75 is running behind schedule by nearly two decades. It has so far delivered five Scorpene-Class submarines and the sixth is slated to be commissioned in 2023. Tragically at the MDL, since the hulls of the Scorpene were completed by 2018, the fabrication skills and infrastructure are idle and awaiting new orders. This is a phenomenon that seems to repeat itself in India’s defence industry and one that has enormous intangible strategic losses in terms of self-reliance.
Project 75(I), too, has been facing rough weather. It was brought under the Strategic Partnership model in Defence Acquisition 2017. The model requires identification of Indian and Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) as partners. In 2020, MDL and Larsen & Toubro (L&T) were shortlisted as Indian partners. The five Original Equipment Manufacturers approved were from South Korea, Russia, Spain, France and Germany. As of July 2022, media reports indicate that a second extension has been granted till December 2022 to submit a response to the Request For Proposal (RFP). The Navy has also approached the Ministry of Defence for relaxations concerning AIP and some other aspects of the contractual features.
The Indian Navy has 16 conventional submarines, which include eight Kilo Class and four French and German submarines respectively. One French submarine is in the advanced stages of operational induction. To offset the delay in submarine induction, measures are also underway to extend the life of conventional submarines by 10-15 years. But the moot point is that 24 submarines approved two decades ago as part of a 30-year plan are still beyond any predictable horizon for realisation.
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Reforms in national security decision making
The aircraft carrier and the submarine are the prime platforms of India’s naval power. The developmental history of both is potholed with delays in decision-making and upholding procedural correctness over timely outcomes, inter alia. When viewed in the larger frame of developing indigenous defence capability, the pathologies have a common source, though they may manifest in different forms. The source is lack of political patronage, guidance and oversight that drives known and urgently required reforms. Publicised reforms repeatedly stall on the hard rock of execution, which is reflected in the absence of a National Security Strategy and the inability to provide long-term budgetary support. One of its current manifestations is the inexplicable delay in appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and practically freezing the much-required shift to the Theatre Command System.
INS Vikrant definitely gives us a cause to feel elated. But we need to overcome our national proclivity for resting on the oars of our unquestionable achievements from time to time. This allows for a false sense of security to prevail, wishing away our equally vital and undeniable shortcomings on the national security front.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)